Preparations for the 2014 presidential elections in Afghanistan. UNAMA Photo/Fardin Waezi


Elections are a vital part of democratic transitions, decolonization, and the implementation of peace agreements around the globe, and the United Nations plays a major role in providing international assistance to these important processes of change.
Today, the UN focuses its electoral efforts on providing technical assistance to help Member States build credible and sustainable national electoral systems. More than 100 countries have requested and have received UN election assistance since 1991, when the General Assembly, in resolution 46/137 of 1991, endorsed the view of the Secretary-General that a Focal Point for Electoral Assistance should be designated to advise him on electoral matters and ensure coherence and consistency in UN electoral assistance. The General Assembly also endorsed the creation of a small unit to support the Focal Point.
The Department of Political Affairs, through its Electoral Assistance Division (EAD), exercises key functions to ensure coherence and consistency within a broad array of UN entities working to provide United Nations electoral assistance in the field (see list below). The Division works to:
  • Ensure consistency in the handling of requests of Member States;
  • Ensure careful coordination and consideration of requests for electoral assistance and channel such requests to the appropriate office or programme;
  • Build on experience gained to develop an institutional memory;
  • Develop and maintain a roster of international experts who can provide technical assistance; Click here for more information on the electoral roster.
  • Maintain contact with regional and other intergovernmental organizations to ensure appropriate working arrangements with them.

History and Evolution

The history of the United Nations is interwoven with elections. In the late 1940s, shortly after its founding, the UN observed elections on the Korean Peninsula. During the subsequent era of trusteeship and decolonization, the United Nations supervised and observed numerous plebiscites, referenda and elections worldwide.
During the 1990s, the United Nations organized or observed landmark elections and popular consultations in Timor-Leste, South Africa, Mozambique, El Salvador and Cambodia. More recently, the Organization has provided crucial technical and logistical assistance in milestone elections in many countries, including in Afghanistan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Sudan.
Demand for U.N. electoral assistance is growing, as is the duration and complexity of operations. Electoral observation, once a core activity in early UN support, is now rare, and technical assistance has grown exponentially. Assistance is closely regulated by the UN General Assembly, and its evolution is reflected in a series of resolutions since 1991 (2012: A/RES/66/163, 2011: A/66/314, 2010: A/RES/64/155, 2008: A/RES/62/150, 2006: A/Res/60/162, A/Res/60/164, 2004: A/Res/58/180, A/Res/58/189, 2002: A/Res/56/159, A/Res/56/154, 2000: A/Res/54/173, A/Res/54/168, 1998: A/Res/52/129, A/Res/52/119, 1996: A/Res/50/185, A/Res/50/172, 1995: A/Res/49/190, A/Res/49/180, 1994: A/Res/48/131, A/Res/48/124, 1993: A/Res/47/138, A/Res/47/130, 1992: A/Res/46/137, A/Res/46/130, 1991: A/Res/45/150, A/Res/45/151).
Even as UN electoral assistance evolves to adapt to the changing needs and circumstances of its Member States, it continues to be based on the principle established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – that the will of the people, as expressed through periodic and genuine elections, shall be the basis of government authority.

Types of Assistance

United Nations electoral assistance is provided based on the principle that there is no universal model; programs are tailored according to the specific needs of each requesting Member State. Although considerable international attention has been given to elections conducted in the context of UN peacekeeping missions or other post-conflict settings, most electoral assistance activities take the form of small scale technical assistance.
  • Technical assistance covers a wide range of short and long term expertise provided to national authorities in charge of administering elections in their country. Advice and support are provided in all sectors of electoral administration, and have expanded as experience has grown and as Member States’ requests have become more sophisticated and specific. Technical assistance can be provided in areas such as electoral administration and planning, review of electoral laws and regulations, electoral dispute resolution, boundary delimitation, voter registration, election budgeting, logistics, procurement of election materials, use of technologies, training of election officials, voter and civic education, voting and counting operations, election security and coordination of international donor assistance.
  • Election observation and other assessments respond to requests for the United Nations to assess or even validate the integrity of an electoral process. Such mandates are inherently political, and thus always based on a decision by the Security Council or the General Assembly. These mandates are rare. They can be an additional tool for national actors to overcome a confidence crisis in an electoral process, and provide interested UN organs with an assessment of the process for their future deliberations. Definitions have evolved, but for instance, mandates for "observation", “verification” or “supervision” were given frequently to the UN in the early days of UN electoral assistance, particularly in accompanying decolonization processes. More recently the UN has been asked to "certify" electoral processes in some countries. In other cases a small UN "expert monitoring" team may be sent to a country to monitor the electoral process and issue an internal report to the Secretary-General on its conduct.
  • Organization or Supervision of Elections. In rare cases, the United Nations may be fully in charge of organizing elections of a Member State. This occurred in Cambodia (1992-1993) and Timor-Leste (2001-2002). In other rare cases, United Nations experts form part of the national electoral administration itself: the responsibility is shared between the Member State and the UN. This was the case in Afghanistan in 2004-2005, and Iraq in 2005. These cases remain exceptions taken in certain transitional settings. As a rule, the United Nations takes a supporting role, to assist the national electoral administration.

Requesting Assistance

While most assistance originates with a Member State request, United Nations electoral assistance may also be provided at the request of the Security Council or the General Assembly, as is often the case when peacekeeping or peace building missions are established with electoral components. However, UN electoral assistance must also be agreed to by the relevant Member State
The preconditions and guidelines for United Nations electoral assistance are described in the Secretary-General's report A/49/675, under Annex III. The principal guidelines and procedures are described below:
Requests for electoral assistance must be made by an organ of the Member State authorized to bind the state in agreements with the UN. National electoral management bodies do not normally have this authority, but their requests may sometimes be acceptable. Requests from political parties, civil society or other entities cannot be considered.
The requesting Member State is required to send a formal written request for electoral assistance, and should be as specific as possible to allow an accurate needs assessment by the United Nations. The request should state the election event(s) for which the UN is requested to provide assistance.
Requests have to be sent to the relevant United Nations Representative at the national or global level (the Secretary-General, her/his Special or Resident Representative, or the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs). All requests will be forwarded to the Focal Point for Electoral Assistance, who is the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs.
Because many aspects of the electoral preparations cycle (e.g. voter registration) take place months or even years before the election event, requests for electoral assistance have to be submitted in sufficient time. Normally a request made less than four months before Election Day cannot be accommodated.
Once the request has been submitted, an evaluation by the United Nations takes place. Normally, the evaluation includes a needs assessment mission (NAM) to the country conducted by the Electoral Assistance Division. Based on the NAM report, the Focal Point for Electoral Assistance decides whether the UN should provide support and what type of support to provide.
Following approval by the Focal Point, design and implementation of the proposed assistance is carried out by the relevant UN entity, in accordance with the NAM recommendations and with advice from the Electoral Assistance Division.

UN entities providing electoral assistance

United Nations electoral assistance is a system-wide endeavor, tapping the complementary expertise and capacities of many parts of the UN family. These include:

The Department of Political Affairs (DPA)

The Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs and head of DPA serves as the UN Focal Point for electoral assistance, and is supported in that function by DPA’s Electoral Assistance Division. All requests for UN electoral assistance must be forwarded to the Under-Secretary-General, whose role is mainly two-fold: advising the Secretary-General on requests from Member States; and ensuring consistency in the delivery of UN electoral assistance. In addition to its broad coordination role in electoral assistance, DPA oversees field-based political missions that in many cases engage in electoral assistance activities as part of their conflict prevention or peace-building mandates.

The Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)

In peacekeeping and many post-conflict environments, assistance is generally provided through electoral components of field missions under the aegis of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations. In those cases, EAD works closely with DPKO in planning and managing electoral support aspects of peacekeeping operations.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

UNDP is the major implementing body for UN electoral support, providing technical assistance, mainly in development contexts; but often as important parts of integrated peacekeeping operations. It manages some 40 to 50 field-based electoral projects per year. UNDP also engages with Member States on long-term capacity development, including the strengthening of electoral management bodies between elections. At the local level, the UNDP Country Offices play a key role in the coordination of electoral assistance. In addition to its field-based activities, UNDP produces important analysis on election-related issues.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

The role of OHCHR in electoral assistance consists mainly in monitoring the human rights situation in a country, before, during and after elections in order to foster an environment conducive to credible elections and ensure the respect of relevant international standards. OHCHR also produces guidelines on human rights standards applicable to elections.

United Nations Volunteers (UNV)

The UNV programme provides critical substantive and operational support for UN electoral field operations, complementing the staffing of such operations with experienced professionals, often in large numbers, and in very short deployment time frames. The Electoral Assistance Division works closely with UNV in selecting personnel for volunteer posts in electoral field missions. Persons registered with UNV are eligible for a variety of volunteer positions in electoral field projects and operations.

The United Nations Office of Project Services (UNOPS)

UNOPS is a service provider to the UN system and its Member States. UNOPS has provided operational and other support to electoral assistance in a number of countries and often works in close cooperation with UNDP on electoral assistance activities. UNOPS’ flexibility and responsiveness are great assets for the UN system in implementing electoral assistance activities.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)

UNESCO is the United Nations specialised agency tasked with promoting and supporting freedom of expression, press freedom and freedom of information. Free, independent media, online as well as offline, are essential to the transition towards democracy. To this end, UNESCO aims to strengthen the capacity of the media to provide fair and balanced coverage of electoral activities. Through its field offices around the world, the UNESCO works with local journalists and media workers, training and building capacity on elections reporting.

Electoral Resources

The United Nations in collaboration with other governmental and non-governmental partners have developed several tools to provide elections practitioners with useful resources.

ACE Electoral Knowledge Network

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network provides comprehensive and authoritative information on elections, promotes networking among election-related professionals and offers capacity development services.
The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network was developed in 2006 by eight partner organizations, leaders in the provision of targeted technical assistance in elections management; namely: Elections Canada, the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA), the Federal Electoral Institute of Mexico (IFE), the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance (I-IDEA), the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD).
  • ACE offers election practitioners online services such as an encyclopedia on elections, comparative data on election practices worldwide; and a wide collection of electoral materials from all over the world.
  • ACE Practitioners’ Network brings together election professionals and practitioners from different countries and with diverse and complementary experience and specialization into the first ever global electoral knowledge network established in the field of elections. The Network is also supported by 10 Regional Electoral Resource Centres worldwide.
  • The ACE Capacity Development Facility focuses on electoral knowledge and experience-sharing; and promotes peer learning and peer support as key principles to build the skills of election managers.

BRIDGE Project -Building Resources in Democracy, Governance & Elections

Since its creation in 2002, the BRIDGE Project has become the most comprehensive professional development course in election administration. Born from a partnership between the United Nations (EAD and UNDP) in collaboration with the International Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the Australian Electoral Commission, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the project has been developed by electoral administrators themselves - people with wide experience of elections in many different countries and contexts.

To date, BRIDGE courses have been conducted by skilled professionals in more than 38 countries for over 4,000 participants. Each training aims to improve the skills, knowledge, and confidence of election professionals and key stakeholders in the electoral process, including members of the media, political parties, electoral observers and the donor community.
BRIDGE workshops are included in many electoral assistance projects and missions to develop the capacity of electoral authorities and other stakeholders.

International Service for Electoral News (ISEN)

ISEN allows interested individuals to register via email to receive daily news clippings (in English) of electoral related stories from online newspapers around the world. Created in 2004, ISEN is the fruit of cooperation between the Department of Political Affairs and the Electoral Tribunal of Panama. ISEN is maintained and generated by the International Relations Advisory Office of the Electoral Tribunal of Panama. The primary beneficiaries of the service are electoral administrators, government officials, the diplomatic community and academia. The United Nations offers no guarantee of completeness, accuracy or endorsement (implicit or explicit) of the information contained in ISEN clippings. To subscribe to receive ISEN clippings, please contact isen@tribunal-electoral.gob.pa

IFES Election Guide

Democracy assistance & elections news from the Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS): http://www.electionguide.org